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Community in the Global Realm

2012/04/20

Keynote to be delivered at Come Together: Digital Collaboration in the Academy and Beyond

What does community mean in global times? Traditionally, community has been associated with place-based social relationships based on shared stories, values and imaginaries. Such arrangements seem to be challenged by modernizing and globalizing forces, leading some to see a current crisis of community, which is turning a former source of stability into a precarious space. Responses vary from seeking to reassert traditional values in the face of change to finding potential for renegotiating the bases on which communal ties conventionally have been built. As the local foundations of many communities are increasingly being reshaped by global interactions, these changes open new possibilities for redefining communal values and opening them to developing transworld relationships based on the belief that another and better world is possible. It remains true, however, that the global is always seen from a particular locality, so that there is no singular global realm in which the imagination operates. The arts remain crucial in shaping the shifting inclusionary and exclusionary imaginaries of community at local, national and global scales of belonging. This talk engages current theorizations of globalization, community, and precarity to ask a series of questions about the conceptual maps through which community in global realms is being charted.

Building on my experience in the “Globalization and Autonomy” project (2001-2012), the “Building Global Democracy” program (2008-2012), and the partnership development project, “Brazil/Canada Knowledge Exchange” (2011-2014), I will argue that community, both as a concept and a set of social relationships, requires revisioning in contemporary times. In academic terms, each discipline claims a particular frame through which it views and assesses community. Interdisciplinary dialogue across these differences is necessary to develop a more complete sense of the strengths and weaknesses of a community-oriented approach. Community matters because it can be both a source of conflict and solace. In 1976, Raymond Williams suggested that community, “unlike all other terms of social organization (state, nation, society, etc.) seems never to be used unfavourably” (66). Such is not the case today. Philosophers such as Jean-Luc Nancy (1991, 2000) and Gieorgio Agamben (1993, 1998) argue that the twentieth-century histories of fascism and communism require major rethinking of what community means, how it operates, and how it might be reinvented to enable alternative forms of sociality. Politically, both neoliberal and left-oriented organizers may put their faith in community-level “grassroots” organizations as a more viable alternative to what are seen as a more remote form of big government at the level of the state at the same time as advocates of the networked society are turning to virtual communities as an alternative to both. In such an environment, community becomes a disputed term and different forms of community activism are being imagined and put into practice.

Leela Gandhi’s Affective Communities (2006) is an important book, but it prompts the question: is there such a thing as a non-affective community? My work as a professor of English and postcolonial studies has led me to focus on the role of English in disrupting and enabling different forms of community engagement within and beyond the nation-state. Following the lead of texts such as Communities of Sense (Hinderliter et al, eds. 2009), this talk will broaden that analysis to consider new directions in the ways the arts are engaging the social to shift away from preconstituted collectivites and identity politics toward practices of affiliation and disaffiliation.

The full text of the paper may be read online.

Works cited have been added to a public group on Mendeley: Community in the global realm

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